Monday, February 28, 2011

By Trolley through the Bolan Pass

The early years of the 19th century saw the beginning of one of the greatest struggles of modern times: the tussle between the two imperial powers of Russia and England for ascendency in Central Asia. This epic struggle led many a good man either to death or to glory, and one such was the young Scotsman Arthur Conolly who was beheaded in the central square of Bokhara by Amir Nasrullah in 1842. It was this high spirited young man who gave the euphemism of "The Great Game" to this conflict.

When railways came of age around the middle of the century both nations saw in it the means to easily and quickly cross the great desert expanses of Asia. And so it was that while the Russians struggled to span the blistering Kyzylkum Desert, east of the Caspian, England was inching its way forward across the desert and mountains lying between Sibi and the garrison town of Quetta. Fear of the Cossacks riding in through the vast openness of Balochistan, the sub continent's back door, rode high and the "Kandhar State Railway", as it was called, was top priority.

First proposed in 1857, this railway hoped to reach Kandhar in Afghanistan and make its way across the southern part of that country to Herat and then to Merv in Central Asia. It was eventually to reach Bokhara which was to be swamped with English and Indian goods to counter the influence of Russian traders. Needless to say that the railway was also to help the army of British India maintain some sort of presence in Central Asia.

Work on the Kandhar State Railway, however was deferred for one reason or the other until the Second Afghan War broke out in 1878. Even then it took the government another two years to get their act together and when work actually began the following year it was in a state of frenzied desperation with a force of three thousand five hundred men. On the sixth day of October 1879, the first rails were laid in a northwesterly direction at the station of Ruk on the Larkana-Sukker section of "The Indus Valley State Railway "; and on January 14, 1880 a jubilant crowd celebrated the completion of the line to Sibi. In an extraordinary effort of engineering, two hundred and seventeen kilometres of line had been laid in a mere one hundred and one days!

But if the Kandhar State Railway had hoped to play its part in the Second Afghan War, it had come a little too late. One thing was clear: that long before the army in Afghanistan could benefit from the line the war would be over. And so the state of hysteria gave way to deliberate inactivity: it was time to take stock and wait out the long, harsh summer of the Sibi plains that was already beginning to make itself felt in the month of February.

Within a few months an event took place in Afghanistan that was to suspend the effort of reaching across the Afghan frontier by railway: in June 1880 on the dusty plain outside the village of Maiwand, west of Kandhar, a British garrison was to suffer one of the most humiliating defeats ever to be their lot in Asia. That and a pacifist government in London seemed to be the undoing of the ambitious plan conceived far away in Delhi in 1857.

Not long afterwards, in 1883, came the news that the Russian had taken Merv. Jogged out of their somnolence the British frantically set to work on the old plan again. But the railway which was to reach Quetta via Harnai, Khost and Bostan was to be a highly secret affair under the improbable title of "The Harnai Road Improvement Scheme". And when in March 1887 the first train ran this route to Quetta it was only for, according to my father, a railway man who served in this part of the country, the most heroic feat in the history of railway engineering: the line that stitched the great crack tearing the crust of the earth in the Chapper Rift. Simultaneously another line was traversing the length of the Bolan Pass and the two were to meet at Bostan, a few miles north of Quetta.

But the heroic endeavour in the Rift is another story. In the event, because of its endless mud slides, it was the Rift itself that defeated this section of the Harnai Road Improvement Scheme. Within a few years of recurrent washouts in the Rift, railway engineers were reconsidering upgrading the much steeper route through the Bolan Pass. And steep this route was: in the twenty six kilometres from Mach, at the eastern end of the pass, to Kolpur in its heart the line climbs a stupendous 801 metres or 2627 ft!

To get around the problems of expensive tunnel building the original track which was opened in August 1886 ran from Sibi to Hirok via Rindli along the bottom of the parallel and less steep Kundlani gorge to the south. And since the first two years after it was laid were virtually dry no damage was suffered. Eventually the rains came causing massive washouts and the new railway had to be designed a safe height above the torrents that swept through the canyon. Thus the present line was laid which we inherited at independence and today as your train, hauled by modern diesels, thunders through the Bolan gorge on its way to or from Quetta you are negotiating what they called the Mushkaf Bolan Route.

Kolpur is magic. The winding highway bisects the town and is overlooked by two and three storeyed houses with stores and tea shops at ground level. All around are stark, brown hills and to the south is the railway station. It is magic because it has the aura of places like Yarkand, Tashkurghan and Merv. Rehmatullah Brohi, the tea shop owner, was a very funny man and big time People's Party whose claim to leadership, he said, was his bald pate. Discovering my own affiliation he refused to accept payment for my cup of tea. He didn't care a fig about me being a travel writer; so far as he was concerned I was a numainda and a numainda at hand had to be favoured with an interview. The honour was therefore, duly bestowed upon me and I was instructed to see to it that it was perused by the Prime Minister.

My arrival at Kolpur was the fulfillment of a family pietas. In 1945 my father, as Assistant Engineer at Mach, had, to use railways jargon, "done" trolley in the Bolan Pass. Now, forty eight years later, I was following him. As their predecessors too must have done, Nazir and his assistant, the trolley men from Mach, had brought up the dinky looking cart in a Quetta bound train. It was simply a wooden platform on four wheels with a brake lever and a rickety bench, so beat up and ancient I half believed it to be the very same trolley that my father would have used almost five decades ago. The axles were oiled, the bench was placed in the housing and the lot was heaved onto the tracks; we were ready to follow in my father's footsteps.

"Sit tight," said Nazir as he gave the trolly a gentle push and jumped on. Soon the bare walls of the gorge were rushing past at more than forty kilometres an hour as we hurtled along the sharp descent. Unaccustomed to be sitting without the protection of a windshield I felt vaguely unsafe but Nazir assured me that the brakes were fine. I pointed out that there was no lining and it was metallic shoes against iron wheels which didn't seem to be such a good idea. "Don't worry," said the man, "If the brakes fail the catch siding doesn't." Ignorance certainly is bliss, for it was after the adventure that friend Sarwat Ali, who had something to do with this journey, told me that accidents with the trolley are known to have happened.

We swept into the cavernous womb of Mary Jane, the tunnel. The thoughts of Irishman F. L. O'Callaghan, who first pushed the railway through the Bolan, must not have been far from home and family for him to have immortalised his wife in the name of a tunnel. Windy Corner and Cascade were indications more of the nostalgia felt by the pioneers for their native Scottish highlands or the Lake District. And local colour was taken care of by the tunnels Pir Panjeh, from a nearby shrine, and Sir-i-Bolan. The only colour in the brown landscape were the trucks and busses labouring along the road never far from us and the several encampments of Brohi nomads where the children jumped up and down and screamed as we sped past.

From a couple of hundred metres away I could see the junction as the track veered to the right and a white painted line shot up the slope on the left to disappear behind the knoll. The brakes squealed, a shower of sparks flew as we slowed to a crawl and Nazir's assistant jumped off to act as pointsman. This was the catch siding where runaway trains shot up the sharp incline and burnt out their kinetic energy before any serious accident could take place. The standard operating procedure was for the point to remain switched to the catch siding and was changed by the pointsman only when the train had slowed to a virtual crawl and he had ascertained that nothing was amiss.

I asked if the catch siding had ever come in useful. "It happened the day Benazir was installed Prime Minister for the first time," said Nazir. But he only grinned when I asked if the driver had been drunk with happiness or so dejected as to have some sort of a death wish on the installation of a woman Prime Minister.

Past the tiny station of Dozan where a solitary man sat waving languidly at us, we sped through the gorge to Hirok, a small brick building as bleak as the barren, stoney gorge it was stuck in. Long before the standard broad gauge line was laid the original section between Hirok and Kolpur was metre gauge. That was perhaps the only moment in the sun for unexciting Hirok as travellers switched from the larger trains to the smaller and as we swept through the station I could not but wonder if modern travellers would take such an irritating routine with the same equanimity as their earlier counterparts. The station of Sir-i-Bolan was aggressively abandoned with gaping holes for doors and windows and several pairs of rock pigeons strutting about the parapet. Nazir said he was not even sure why, in the first place, this station was ever built and did not remember how long ago it had been abandoned.

The bustle of Mach was a sharp contrast from the bleak desolation of Dozan and Hirok. The babble of languages on the platform, in the bazaar and from the mosques (for it was Friday) comprised of Pushto, Brohi, Balochi, Persian and Punjabi. Mach was cosmopolitan.

Nazir walked me out of the station and up a narrow path to the Assistant Engineer's office. It was too new to be the place where my father would have worked in 1945, but past the stone wall was the house that looked old enough. The chowkidar let us in but the sahib was away at Dalbandin and I had to satisfy myself peering through the windows into the interior that had once been my parents' home. Unlike Mohammed Sharif at Dalbandin, there was, unhappily, no one in Mach who remembered my father. They said locals did not join the railways in those days and the staff was nearly always Punjabi and Sindhi who had since retirement left the place.

Within the year my father was transferred yet again; this time to Dharampur on the Kalka-Simla section (India) where he had the distinction of being the first Muslim AEN. Of all the narrow gauge railways in the sub continent the Kalka-Simla section is one of the few that still survives. In Pakistan the last of these toy trains ran some five years ago before they finally got the axe, victims either of improved road transportation or official inefficiency. If there is another pilgrimage to be made it will be to Dharampur. For the time being Mohammed Sharif had made the journey worthwhile. The pilgrimage, for the time being at least, was done. I was ready to go home.

Salman Rashid is author of eight travel books including The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Google Recipe View

Google began rolling out Thursday a new search feature that makes finding recipes on the web a little easier.

Dubbed “Recipe View,” the feature lets users filter search results according to ingredients, cook time, calories and more. Users can search, for instance, for recipes containing brussels sprouts, devised by chef Ina Garten, that take less than an hour to make. Pictures, ingredients and one- to five-star user ratings are highlighted in the listed results, helping users quickly discover or bypass recipes.

To use Recipe View, simply select the “Recipes” link on the left-hand panel when searching for a recipe.

Google plans to enable the feature to all users in the U.S. and Japan by Thursday evening; it also plans to introduce the feature to additional countries in the future, a Google spokesperson said.

Congratulation to Prof Dr Norbert Pintsch

Prof Dr Norbert Pintsch has been working tirelessly on Appropriate Technology in Cameroon, Pakistan and elsewhere.

I have the fortune to be familiar with Prof Dr Norbert Pintsch’s work in Technical Transfer and Training Center (TTTC) for Men in remoe Pakistani Village Thatta Ghulamka Dheroka, Mud Housing Project at Lahore and also what he has been doing to promote African energy through the use of solar energy with the meaningful and active cooperation with Senior Expect Service (SES) Bonn-Germany and Society for the Advancement of Culture (DGFK) Berlin Germany as solutions to Climate Change and adaptation.

Prof Dr Norbert Pintsch has experience with no less than 133 projects since 1976 and each one of them has made a visible difference in more than one ways.

To recognize the work of Prof Dr Norbert Pintsch, the Senate of the Bamenda University of Science  and Technology (BUST) on the Nomination of Board of Governors of Industrial and Educational Development Company (INDECO) Ltd have conferred upon Prof Dr Norbert Pintsch the Honorary Title of Doctor of Science with all the Rights and Previleges Thereto Pertaining in Recognation of his tangible Services to the Cause of Appropriate Technology on Feb 19, 2011.

Big congratulations Prof Dr Norbert Pintsch.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The embroidery effect

Social enterprises use market-based models and strategies for a social purpose by working with skilled craftsmen, artisans, farmers and so on at the grassroots level. Currently in Pakistan, there are a handful of organisations that can be correctly labeled as a social enterprise and Polly & Me is one of them. Founded in 2003 by two sisters, Cath and Ange Braid, Polly & Me has introduced the handicraft and traditional embroidery skills of Chitrali women to the international market.

Cath, who has studied art and design from London, first visited Chitral in December 2000 to work on her final year’s thesis. It was then she came to know and fall in love with Pakistan. Along with her sister Ange, she founded Polly & Me in 2007. After living in Chitral for a few years, Cath is now settled in Islamabad and makes regular trips to check on the progress of the womens embroidery collective. speaks to Cath Braid, the force behind the initiative, on some of the challenges she has faced and even some things she learnt along the way. – Text by Amna Khalique and Photography by Eefa Khalid/, [Polly and Me]

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Friendship under a Peepal tree

The peoples of Pakistan and India (residing along both the sides of the Sialkot) have unanimously declared more than one century old Peepal Tree as a “Friendship Tree”. This tree is located at the Zero Point in Sucheetgarh-Sialkot, here. The half of this tree is in India and half in Pakistan.

This ancient tree was still providing the shadows to divided people of both the sides, as the divided families from both sides often gathered there at the Zero Point near Sucheetgarh-Sialkot Sector with the high hopes of durable peace between the two nuclear neighbours Pakistan and India. On every Sunday, the peoples of Pakistan and India are usually gathered under the shadows of this friendship tree at Zero Point and express their sentiments regarding friendship and peace between the two countries. They also exchange gifts and sweets amongst them.

They were hopeful that said friendship tree would definitely promote friendship and peace between the two countries, saying that this tree leaves the shadows of friendship and peace to the both ends. The calm of the hundreds of the different kinds of birds reveals that there was complete lull, calm and peace there along the Sialkot Working Boundary.

The tree welcomes the people from both sides, who come there with open minds and open hearts as well.

The security officials of Pakistan and India told that a joint name plate of “Friendship Tree” would soon be affixed on this ancient tree, as half of this tree was in Indian side and half in Pakistani side.

Government must give priority to Child Rights: District Coordinator SPARC CRC Sialkot Muhammad Arslan Khan has called upon the Government and parliamentarians to work for the protection of children’s rights. Noting the increase in child labor, incidents of sexual abuse and violence against children, he termed the situation “very alarming” and demanded that the government take notice.

Talking to the newsmen here today, he said that although Pakistan ratified the UN Convention on the rights of the child in 1990, the rights of the country’s children continue to be violated.

He added that child labor and trafficking, violence in the home, school and workshop, sexual abuse, child marriages and the handing over of under age girls in dispute settlements are a few examples of direct transgressions against child rights that take place virtually every day across the country. Also pressing is the issue of juvenile offenders: the juvenile Justice System Ordinance was formulated in 2000 but the codes of conduct laid out therein have never been properly implemented.

In reality, minors falling foul of the law rarely benefit from there rights, as specified by the ordinance, to state-provided legal council or alternative sentencing measures. [Source]


A bureaucrat, mutated into an ‘intellectual’, hogs the waves of an Urdu television channel and tells the ignorant television viewing public what it wants to hear. One of his not-so-recent gems was about the country that is now Pakistan being a wild and savage land until illuminated by Islam in the early 8th century. That, until that time, this land had no culture or sophistication. The man is a liar and a charlatan.

In April 326 BCE, Alexander arrived in Taxila and it is from that time we get the first real notice on this wonderful city. Several members of the Macedonian’s staff wrote diaries that were subsequently published. Some of those works are lost entirely, others preserved by later historians. Whatever the case, they provide a fantastic window into the city.

Taxila was a city of Buddhists and Brahmans and of yet another class that did not bury its dead. They exposed them in isolated places for the bones to be picked clean by the birds. This was a clear reference to the followers of the great Zartusht or Zoroaster — the people we today know as Parsees. We are told that the Brahmans were a very powerful class, actively engaged in the political life of the city and serving as counsellors to the court.

As for the Buddhists, Greek writers refer to them as ‘sramanes’. Clearly this was a mispronunciation of ‘sramanera’, or a new entry training to be a monk. Though there is no dearth of ruins of post-Alexander Buddhist monasteries in town, we can take this as proof of Taxila being a centre of learning even before the westerners descended upon it.

There is no notice of animosity between followers of the various religious persuasions who lived in total harmony. Taxila, if we are to believe Alexander’s general Nearchus, was a city of peace and the rule of law. Nearchus notes, with evident awe, the rectitude and decency of the townspeople who made all monetary transactions without “either seals or witnesses”. Yet the courts of law were without any cases of fraud! Mendacity was unheard of and when folks went away, either for work or pleasure, they left their homes unlocked and unguarded for theft was not known in Taxila!

The people of Taxila were admirers of physical beauty and never left home improperly dressed or made up. The men wore their beards either in white or in punk shades of bright red, green or purple. The dress, as described by Nearchus, was “an under-garment of cotton which reaches below the knee halfway down to the ankles, and also an upper garment which they throw partly over their shoulders, and partly twist in folds around their heads.”

Their shoes had thick soles to make the wearer seem taller and the clothing of the rich men was worked in gold thread and studded with precious stones. When they went about their business out of doors, attendants shaded them from the harsh Punjabi sun with broad parasols.

Polygamy was common among the rich. But parents with daughters of marriageable age and unable, because of poverty, to wed them off, exhibited the damsels in the town square. There the champions of Taxila fought boxing matches and the winner’s prize was the hand of the girl in marriage.

Arrian called Taxila “the largest [city] between the Indus and the Jhleum” and we can tell from the above description of its richer classes that it was indeed so. Sitting at a spot that made it an important staging post for caravans, it picked off large amounts in custom duties. But much of its wealth also came from its rich agriculture. According to Nearchus, there was no shortage of food in Taxila.

But the noblest aspect of Taxilian society was the respect it bestowed upon its learned men. The philosophers, whose fame had reached Alexander months before he got to Taxila, were held in the highest possible esteem by the Taxilians. They lived outside town, but whenever they wandered in, people mobbed them, oiling their hair and massaging their limbs, begging them to come into their homes so that they could hear their discourse.

Taxila was a city of high culture that valued true learning. And we have a mendacious bureaucrat pretending to be an intellectual who tells us otherwise.

The writer is author of eight travel books including The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Monday, February 21, 2011

Rupal face of Nanga Parbat

Nanga Parbat – naked mountain - is the ninth highest peak (8125 meters) in the world and second highest in Pakistan situated on the western tip of great Himalayan. It is also known as Killer Mountain because of the difficulties of reaching the summit. Its face in the south called the Rupal Face rises over 5000 meters from the valley floor to the summit. After a German climber Hurman Bhul scaled it in 1953, many climbers have stepped on the majestic peak including Nazir Sabir of Pakistan. Many have lost their lives in this pursuit too. This is a story of an expedition with which I opted to go as a facilitator.

I have always been eager to visit mountains that lead me to join one expedition to Nanga Parbat as a local facilitator. I met leader of the expedition Adrian Burgees - a blonde foreign national with muscular, lean and tall disposition in the Ministry of Tourism Islamabad and instantly liked him. I was responsible to see that every thing goes smooth. Later, I was introduced to all other members of the expedition and together we tied up details for journey, rations, transportation and purchase of additional climbing gears.

On a hot evening of early May, we boarded a NATCO bus for Gilgit. By nightfall we were in Abbotabad, the city was quiet and cool. In the darkness, I could not witness the scenic beauty around but the freshness and aroma in the atmosphere was quiet alluring and it reminded me of the days I had spent there during training. The bus went on through Patan, Bisham, and Chilas and reached Gilgit at noon next day. We stayed next tow days at Hunza Inn situated on the banks of Indus River. The hotel lawn was bustling with people in the evening, mostly the foreigners who were the trekkers, mountaineers or sight watchers. We tied up all details about forthcoming events there.

We all remained busy in final preparations. Adrian Burgees, Paul, Hugh and Guy Burton assembled the equipment and rations into 70 equal porter loads, each load weighing 25 to 30 kilograms. Myself, Clark and Tony, the British expedition doctor went out to coordinate for transport and purchase of commodities. It was a cool summer morning when we set off for Tarishing, a small village on the edge of Rupal valley and a road head. Bunji is the first town that comes on our way after getting off the metalled road. This town though rich in landscape and colour could not force us to halt due to time constraints and we stopped at Astor instead. This small town is located at the hillock top and provides view of picturesque Astor Valley, Astor River, adjoining Rama Lake and a view of Nanga Parbat. After lunch we continued driving downhill and went past Gurikot, a small military hutment area and thin local population scattered around. Moving along the Indus River on bumpy track was immensely joyful. The river current was very fast with ice cold water. Small water streams coming down from the hills occasionally splashed water on moving jeep showering us.

In the after noon we were at Tarishing, this small village is located at uneven landscape comprising a few small flat patches, small hillocks and a main water channel running in the centre of the village. We camped at the site near the stream, and allotted the loads to seventy porters who were already waiting there for us from nearby villages. Next day, early morning we started the ascent forward. We crossed the Tarishing Glacier whose width would have been around 2 kilometres. The glacier was emanating from Nanga Parbat’s adjoining hills from the south, and its mouth lies in the Rupal River. Melting glacier hampered steady walk and at places it was hop-step and jump. Upon crossing this glacier, we entered mystic Rupal valley. As we trekked past the Rupal village, the surroundings were quiet and I could only hear birds singing and Rupal River roaring at a distance.

Lush green meadows, quiet and sleepy villages, natural forests and captivating Nanga Parbat views are main attributes of the Rupal valley. At noon we reached at Begre (known as Polish base camp) camp, located next to the main Rupal Valley. This site too has natural beauty, meadows, crystal clear water stream and an impressive view of Nanga Parbat ahead. After taking quick lunch and rest, we decided to move ahead. The Bazing Glacier was impregnable obstacle in front; single file was adopted to minimize the risk. The breaking glacier was full with crevasses, creeks and conduit water ways. It took us more than two hours to negotiate two kilometres width of this glacier.

After crossing this glacier we were into a lush green flat spot with forests nearby. This is called as the Letabo Base Camp. All the major expeditions to Nanga Parbat had stayed here under the shadow of the great mountain. The Koreans were already camped alongside the fresh water stream. They greeted us warmly. This place is also called as Herligcoffer base camp, named after a German climber and expedition organizer. But this was not to be our base camp area. We stayed the night at this spot. Early morning we set off for our final leg of trek to base camp. This new site was chosen by Adrian Burgees who come here few years ago to climb Nanga Parbat but went back without taking the peak. We climbed up through the narrow gorge which opens into a relatively flat but ascending bowl shaped feature. This place is approximately 1000 meters higher then the Letabo Base Camp, much cooler and windy due to narrow tunnel effect of the valley. This place is just under the nose of Nanga Parbat peak.

This is the place where I was to spend rest of the period while the others were to climb Nanga Parbat. Fakir Muhammad, a middle aged man from Hunza, was our cook. He quickly established the kitchen behind a big boulder. Climbers began their work, made a steady progress and established three camps but unexpected weather would always pull the climbers back from the mountain to base camp. In base camp, I mostly spent the time exploring nearby features. One day, I also joined Adrian and Paul who were going to camp one for reconnaissance. I donned my high altitude outfit, carried necessary gear and trailed behind. Soon we were near the famous icefall, approximately 1200 feet higher from base camp. At places the gradient was more then seventy degrees. But with the help of fixed ropes and jumpers, I managed this climb by afternoon. We stayed for two days at camp one and reached camp two the third day. I tried to acclimatize but after two days, heavy storm struck the camp, continuous snow fall almost buried us in the canvas tents. Finding a pause amid bad weather, we slipped down during a moon lit night, while the winds were relaxing.

Witnessing transformation of a dry and barren gorge into splendid natural artefact was a unique experience, but the nature took its toll. The expedition suffered from damages: Hugh slipped from icefall, injured his back while the Australian boy escaped an avalanche and lost equipment as ransom to nature. Fakir too was running low on rations. Such were the conditions which forced Adrian to abort the expedition, very disappointing though it was.

Move back to civilization was rather quiet. We trekked back from the colourful gorge, saddened, members of the expedition for not conquering Nanga Parbat and me for their aborted efforts – I had developed a fraternity with them. Quickly, we moved down the gorge to the Letabo Base Camp, where Koreans were still struggling with the weather. Instead passing through Bazing glacier, we chose to prefer a foot track along northern range of medium sized mountains to Rupal valley. This new route was a little long but safe, throughout its length it gives splendid view of Rupal River and the mouth of the Bazing Glacier. At dusk we reached Tarishing and in next three days, I was on my way home.

Foreign Food

Staple foods eaten in the north are corn, millet, and peanuts. In the south, people eat more root vegetables, such as yams and cassava, as well as plantains (similar to bananas). In both north and south regions, the starchy foods are cooked, then pounded with a pestle (a hand-held tool, usually wooden) until they form a sticky mass called fufu (or foofoo), which is then formed into balls and dipped into tasty sauces. The sauces are made of ingredients such as cassava leaves, okra, and tomatoes. The food most typical in the southern region of Cameroon is ndole , which is made of boiled, shredded bitterleaf (a type of green), peanuts, and melon seeds. It is seasoned with spices and hot oil, and can be cooked with fish or meat. Bobolo , made of fermented cassava shaped in a loaf, is popular in both the south and central regions.

Fresh fruit is plentiful in Cameroon. The native mangoes are especially enjoyed. Other fruits grown locally and sold in village marketplaces include oranges, papayas, bananas, pineapples, coconuts, grapefruit, and limes.

Read more: Food in Cameroon - Cameroonian Food, Cameroonian Cuisine - traditional, popular, dishes, recipe, diet, history, common, meals, staple, rice, people, favorite, make, customs, fruits, country, bread, vegetables, bread, drink. [From Here]

Friday, February 18, 2011

When in Pakistan, eat like Pakistanis

A day starts with a breakfast everywhere in the world. Even doctors advise to have a hearty and kingly breakfast after a night fasting. And that is what most people do – have a healthy, plateful of breakfast no matter what it is as it provides just the right kind of kick off to get busy with one’s work.

What do people like around the world? Well I looked around and found one thing most common – eggs. Perhaps one of the most lovable “whole meal” the Heaven ever created is this small shelled white thing containing the white and yellow. And this is one good reason for the artists to combine these two colours in their paintings to give a soothing, yet absorbing effect in their artwork.

Like all others, egg is also a favourite choice in Pakistan. It generally is taken in fried or omelets form. Though in winters, people prefer to eat boiled eggs in the cold chilly evenings when outside in the open.

Coming back to the choice breakfasts in Pakistan, the first and the foremost is the simple, affordable and widely taken breakfasts, especially in the rural areas and by workers and those who cannot afford an expensive breakfast. Yes I am talking of a well greased layered Paratha with a cup of tea. And if tea happens to be Doodh Patti, the breakfast certainly turns kingly. This breakfast continues to be there for God knows since how many centuries as generation after generation this breakfast continues to be there in the same form as it’s found today. I shared a photograph and a post sometime back of four French cyclists having Paratha with Doodh Patti at a small eatery in Islamabad. I am sure they would have enjoyed it.

People living in the urban areas prefer eggs with bread, called “double roti” in Pakistan. Why plain bread is called double roti, I do not know. Rather no one seems to know how this translation of bread came about. May be it has to do with some incident during the British rule of the united India when they introduced bread in this part of the world. The eggs can be scrambled, friend half fried, full fried (my favourite as I do not like that sticky yellow things oozing out of its fried covering and making a mess of my shirt when taking a flight from my plate to my mouth), and of course the omelet. Omelet can have various forms; simple or plain, with onions, with onions and green chilies, with onions, green chilies and tomatoes, and even adding hot dogs and chasse into it. Omelet is one thing that one can add on and on and may finish up making a rich Spanish omelet. Eggs can be boiled and taken independent of bread or the” double roti.”

Going up the greasy stuff, Halwa Poori and Bhaji is perhaps the most likeable for all and sundry, specially on the weekends and holidays. I just had it today, though it wasn’t weekend, but since I had gone for some “domestic help,” I brought back sizzling hot pooris and the add ons despite the fact that there was thick fog outside. And before I forget to mention, when venturing my “domestic help project,” I usually take my younger son along for the company. And his presence pays well when while the pooris are being made, he orders two cups of doodh patti from the same eatery and we enjoy sipping hot steamy heavenly tea. Coming back to halwa and poori, those interested in its recipe can find it in my website Pakistanpaedia.

My fourth favourite is yet another greasy and oily “Sri Paye.” This is again one of the most favourite breakfasts, specially in Lahore – a city of taste and innovative foods. Sri is the head of the goat and paye are its four feet. These are prepared almost the whole night and early in the morning one can find the small eateries that one can find on ever corner of Lahore serving this to its customers. This is normally served in round shape “payalas” rather than flat or beveled plates. To add to its taste, it is eaten with kulchay or naan (specially made rounded bread baked in the tandoor or the typical Eastern earthen oven.

The fifth one is nihari. This is yet another heavily spiced and oily breakfast made of beef and served with naan and kulchay.

I will post the recipe of these two breakfasts soon. But these are specialists’ dishes which housewives would difficult to prepare to give the same tastes and aroma. I am lucky that my wife does it very well and I don’t have to go out finding these shelf-prepared breakfasts.

If you are visiting Pakistan and specially Lahore and have a stomach to sustain these heavily spiced and greased breakfasts, do insist your host to take you to places to have these. Or you can also find it yourself, especially near the railway station and the bus stands. So don’t miss these spicy, yet long not forgotten breakfasts of your life.

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Thursday, February 17, 2011

Travels in Siberia

Robert Reid

Most people equate ‘Siberia‘ with a freezing expanse of Gulags, or a joyless place to escape from — or maybe just the worst table in your favourite restaurant back home. But for Ian Frazier, author of Travels in Siberia, this region without defined boundaries (and 150 million mammoths embedded in its sea of permafrost) is something of an ultimate destination.

Captured in the early ‘90s by the ‘independent force’ of ‘Russia-love’, Frazier spent 17 exhaustive years researching and writing of a land he calls ‘both great and horrible’. Ultimately Frazier is left to quote poet Fyodor Tyutchev: ‘Russia cannot be understood by the mind… all you can do is believe in her.’

One can begin to believe by reading Frazier’s Travels in Siberia, which follows five of his trips to Russia’s wild east (even bumping into Lonely Planet author Simon Richmond at one point). A champion of curiosity (or a slave to it), Frazier takes it on largely through the lens of those who’ve gone before, frequently quoting works by Siberian explorers, jailed poets or Decembrists, curious Ohioans (such as himself) and uppity priests.

It’s frequently breathless and thrilling, though less humorous than some of Frazier’s writings. Readers may breeze over some of the historical passages or obscure quotes after awhile. But several scenes from his present-day Siberia adventures, in particular, defy forgetfulness.

Frazier writes of cross-country drivers being stopped at roadside weddings and detained for days by good-natured revelers, or poachers he met who touchingly gave him their freshly caught salmon after learning of 9/11. He even pegs the unique smell of the Russian continent (a mix of diesel, cucumber, tea bags, sour milk and jam). Most memorable is a full three-page quote from a Severobaikalsk gardener who sweetly recounts a pink flamingo falling from the sky. I’ve never seen a passage that better dismisses the all-too-common misperception that Russians are heartless, grim-faced meanies.

If he leans too often to dusty bookshelves from libraries back home, it’s forgiven by the glimpse of a misunderstood region. And his frequent restraint. While most writers would fill a book out of an ambitious 9000-mile roadtrip in a broken-down Renault van with two Russian guides that finishes on September 11, 2001, Frazier gives it just about a third of the book’s 530 pages.

The book finishes, marvelously, with an unfinished, final passage taken from a Decembrist’s diary, perhaps suggesting that Siberia is a destination that’s never really arrived at.

I know the feeling. I too have endured the pleasures and pains of the ‘Russia-love’ Frazier writes about. My first visit was within a year of Frazier’s, and I’ve since angled my way onto several Lonely Planet titles to satisfy my Russia itch. I’ve seen more of the region than many will, or would want, to see – lost Soviet towns, decaying off of secondary train lines. Each time I come back home feeling bruised, reeling and complaining from a country that’s never easy to visit. And I always want more.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Lahore is Lahore

I first became familiar with city of Lahore during the 70s and after wandering about in different parts of the world for over three decades, I have come once again, to be part of it this time.

Away from Lahore, I used to wonder if all the rhetoric about the magic city has any substance to it. Land of superlatives, Lahore is Pakistan’s second biggest and one of the most prosperous cosmopolitan cities, home to universities and colleges, spiritual centers and historic, cultural, commercial and political centre. It has been a land of plenty since centuries. “Lahore is one of the greatest cities of the East,” wrote William Finch, a traveller from the west, in his journal back in 1610.” I found new answers every day.

With over 1500 years of recorded history, Lahore has surpassed those days when saint Hazrat Data Gang Bakhsh said, “It is one of the hamlets in suburbs of Multan”. It has been an empire, a kingdom, a state capital and now cultural capital of a young nation forged in the crucible of one of the world’s oldest civilizations. Lahore is constantly reinventing itself. Now it is changing into a city of fun, festivities, fun and flowers.

The city is known for its beautiful gardens, exquisite fountains, delicious cuisines, and rich heritage of architecture, art and music. Mughal rulers introduced the concept of green places, gardens and baradraries in the city. In 1849, there were 164 gardens in and around Lahore and most were in tact till partition in 1947. Traveler John Foster Fraser wrote in 1899, in his book Round the World on a Wheel, “Lahore is a sort of glorified Gardens.” The axiom seems true in spring when all roads are lavishly lined with flowers beds, flower baskets hanging with poles and bougainvillea blooming from the outer walls of private houses.

Someone once put it that the streets of (old) Lahore are not only paved with bricks, but with history. The old and compact part of the city - neighborhood where much links of the city with the past are in tact - is not at all easy to navigate. But by wandering aimlessly not only you will get less heated up but you will see more too, and it will eventually get you where you started. Enter through any of the thirteen surviving gateways around once walled city and you can make it around without so much as glancing at a map. What you need to do is make a conscious decision to see Lahore, as it is required to be seen: on a long leisurely stroll into the life of the city. A diplomat once said, “Lahore should be seen on your own. No protocols, no guides and no time limits.” Another thing you will need is a starting point.

The best place to stat is at the Food Street in Gowalmandi, a good mixture of past architectural glories and present culinary delights. I could not recognize the old Gowalmandi I was familiar with during my stay in 1970s. It has changed so much after commissioning in 2000. Gowalmandi Food Street gained popularity as a food centre after independence when Kashmiri immigrants settled here. With them came a new types and traditions of food. A trader of the street says, “apart from variety of cuisine, Gowalmandi Food and Heritage Street has come up as a singularity in Lahore.”

“We want to show real Lahore in Food and Heritage Street,” says a shopkeeper in the Food Street. It is a wonder what collective efforts on renovation of built heritage with balconies and angular projections lining the street have resulted in. Lahorites already (and justifiably) compare the ambiance in the Food Street with lanes in Rome, Paris and Athens.

Sizzling spicy foods on display in street is very mouth-watering. Unfazed by noisy crowd and the bustle, people do not look at each other. At night, the tables are full. One of the shopkeepers told that on the average he sells 200 kilograms of meat and chicken every day. Every body is lead by aroma and looks at the food in front of him or on the fire. Variety of languages greets your ear. The waiters will get the orders though mine was changed once. I was served Butter Chicken Karahi when I ordered chicken breast piece. Foreign tourists look at the food being prepared with amazement and keep clicking their cameras.

So these are some of the realities of Lahore.

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Sunday, February 13, 2011

Is Pir Sar Alexander's Aornos?

Despite worldwide acceptance of Pir Sar as Aornos, accounts of later travellers call for further exploration

Alexander divided his army in two before entering India. The main bulk of the army he placed under the command of his generals Perdiccas and Hephastion, which came down following the river Kabul, captured the capital Peuceloatis (Charsada). Went on to Hund to build a bridge over the Indus and await the arrival of Alexander. He entered India in early 326 BC.

A smaller portion of the army he led himself with generals Perdiccus and Hephaestion, followed the river Kunar and turned east to enter Dir, Swat, Buner and then joined the Macedonian army on the Indus at Hund.

Arrian of Nicomedia writing nearly 500 years after Alexander describes Aornos thus, this is a mighty mass of rock in that part of the country, and even Herakles, the son of Zeus, had found it to be impregnable.

In the case of this rock my own conviction is that Herakles was mentioned to make the story of its capture all the more wonderful. It was ascended by a single path cut by the hand of man, yet difficult.

Alexander on learning these particulars was seized with an ardent desire to capture this mountain also, the story current about Herakles not being the least of the incentives. Pir Sar a natural mountain fastness lies on the right bank of the river Indus opposite Thakot and approximately four miles West as the crow flies from the town which is on the left bank. Pir Sar is at an altitude of 7,100 feet above sea level. The height and circuit of Aornos give by Arrian was 6,600 feet above sea level and circuit 22 miles, whilst Diodorus put the height at 9600 feet and the circuit at 11 miles.

Arrian, here as elsewhere our chief authority for all that concerns the great conquerors campaign, tells us that on hearing of the fall of Ora, the other Assakenoi, i.e. the people of Swat, all left their towns and fled to the rock in that country.

Sir Aurel Stien of the Indian Archeological Survey of India was granted permission by the Wali of Swat Miangul Gul Shahzada Sir Abdul Wadood to explore Pir Sar on the Indus. He was gived an escort and porters and started out from Saidu Sharif capital of Swat and reached Pir Sar on 26 April, 1926 AD.

Aurel Stein on his way to Pir Sar from Saidu Sharif found the Karorai Pass 6400 feet above sea level covered with fresh snow and the Shilkai Pass at 9400 feet above sea level covered with four to five feet of snow which had to be trampled by labourers to allow Steins party to cross over the pass.

Going up towards Pir Sar Stein was told the name of a mountain by a guide Una-Sar. He it seems came to the conclusion that he was near Aornos as it sounded close to Una. Una peak is at a height of 8,721 feet.

On the morning of April 27, 1926 after arriving at Pir Sar the very first thing Aurel Stein states, “The violent gusts of wind that shook my little tent during the night of my arrival on Pir Sar left but a poor chance of sleep before I rose next morning at day break. The icy blasts blowing down the Indus from the snow-covered ranges of Kohistan, comparatively so near, made it difficult to enjoy the view. It was the same throughout the three days that we spent on this exposed height.”

Fugitives from Swat would have died in droves during early March to mid April on Pir Sar from extreme cold winds, exposure and snow on the ground and the lack of supplies. It is inconceivable that Fugitives in thousands who left upper Swat would all have gone to Pir Sar the top of which is approx one mile long and three hundred yards wide. They would not have been able to take their animals to such a height for mere lack of fodder and deep snow in Feb-mid April 326 BC.

A very old Gujjar told Stein that the locals had never heard of Alexander having come to this region. He had heard from his elders that Pir Sar was the summer residence of Raja Sirkap.

The exposure and fatigue to which the men had been subjected during those happy days on the height of Aornos and the marches to and from it obliged me to make a two days’ halt at Chakesar. It felt warm enough down there at an elevation of less than 4,000 feet. Arrian mentions that after operations in Swat valley were completed, Alexander proceeded to take the capital city of Peukelaotis (Charsada). Incidentally it was already in control of the Macedonians.

Had Alexander come down to attack Peukelelaotis (Charsada) he would then on his way to Aornos (Pir Sar) have met up with his army at Hund on Indus. It just did not make sense that Alexander came down South from Swat to Penukelaotis (Charsada) then went close to his army near Hund, then up North to Aornos (Pir Sar) along the Indus.

Arrian describes how Alexander had trees cut to fill up a gully to enable him to attack the fugitives. On the fourth day the fugitives agreed to abandon the heights and disperse. Whilst they were in the process Alexander leading seven hundred of his soldiers clambered up to Pir Sar and killed many whilst some died falling off the cliffs. Where Herakles had failed, Alexander was master of Aornos.

From Pir Sar, Arrian mentions that the brother of Assakenos had taken refuge in the mountains with elephants and host of neighbouring barbarians (region of central Buner). Locals had fled to Abisares, i.e. to the ruler of Hazara. Alexander followed along the Barundu river meeting the Indus.

Ptolemy who was active in the fighting, writing to his tutor Aristotle describes Aornos as as the largest of the cities in the area. He states that it was over twenty miles in circumference and located at a height of eight thousand feet.

Professor Tucci who had done extensive excavation in Swat during the 1960s claims that Pir Sar is unlikely to be Aornos and favours Mount Ilam, 9200 feet above sea level in Buner overlooking the Karakar Pass, 4350 feet above sea level to be Aornos. Mount Ilam has been a sacred spot for Hindus since centuries.

Here again the question arises as to how fugitives from the Swat valley would survive for nearly over a month in open snow over six to eight feet deep.

It is obvious that Arrian and Diodorus were not familiar with the geography or topography of the region. It seems that Alexander did not go to Pir Sar (Aornos).

Despite worldwide acceptance of Pir Sar as Aornos, there is a need not to close the matter but to further explore the actual location of Aornos other than Pir Sar.

The writer is former speaker and foreign minister of Pakistan.

Related: Throne of Origins

Saturday, February 12, 2011


A chef prepares "kat-a-kat" a dish that combines mutton or lamb meat with kidney, heart, and other unusual delicacies. The ingredients are cooked on a "tawa" - a kind of flat wok. As they slowly sizzle the chef uses his knives to rapidly chop them into fine pieces, making the unique "kat-a-kat!" sound which gives the dish its name. [#]

The philosophers of Taxila

Alexander was still on the far side of the Sindhu River, yet he already knew of the philosophers of Taxila. And so, having taken the city without a fight and settled its affairs, the Macedonian one day asked for the philosophers to be brought into his presence. The man tasked with the job was the sailor Onesicritus, a native of Cos, who had been a student of the Cynic philosopher Diogenes.

Megasthenes, the Greek ambassador in the court of Chandragupta Maurya, who was in our part of the world for fifteen years, from 300 to 285 BCE, tells us of them. They lived outside the city, abstained from animal food or anything cooked by fire. They ate fruits and nuts that grew in the area, went about naked (perhaps with only a loin-cloth) and inured themselves to extreme hardship. They practiced celibacy and held death in contemptuous disregard.

We also learn that they were very highly regarded by the people of Taxila. When the savants wandered into town, they were mobbed by young and old, women and men, rich and poor alike. Ordinary people stopped them in the streets, poured oil in their hair and massaged their limbs. Shopkeepers stood aside and permitted them to take whatever they pleased, though that was never much, and people invited them into their homes. All they asked in return from the philosophers was to hear their discourse.

To these philosophers did Alexander send Onesicritus. It was a day getting to be hot in late April in 326 BCE, when the sailor from Cos crossed the Tamrah rivulet and went into the forest outside the city. The first man Onesicritus accosted was stretched full length, stark naked, on bare stones. The sailor made an introduction and asked for a discussion. That did not please the Taxilian. He taunted the visitor, telling him that if he wished to learn of his philosophy, he would have strip naked and lie on the blistering hot stones.

Megasthenes tells us that this young, impertinent man was rebuked by an elder philosopher lying some distance away. The latter, named Mandanis in Greek, called Onesicritus over and there appears to have been a short discourse between them. Mandanis is said to have held forth on the nature of pleasure and grief and when the visitor said that his own mentor, Diogenes, held similar views, Mandanis was pleased.

But the Greeks were wrong, said the sage. They went about pampering their bodies with fancy attire and the easy life. The best body, said the man, was the one that needed minimal upkeep and maintenance as his own did, for he lived off the bounty of the earth.

From Megasthenes’ work it seems as if Onesicritus had to pay at least one return visit to convince Mandanis to visit Alexander. The first time, when he relayed Alexander’s desire for the philosophers to make themselves available at court, Mandanis roundly dismissed the request.

On the second visit, Onesicritus mixed threat with allure. If Mandanis and his fellows would present themselves to Alexander, there were lavish gifts to be had. But if they refused, the king would have them executed. Mandanis is reported, by Megasthenes, to have said that the worldly possessions that Alexander promised only fuelled worry and banished sleep. All that the savants of Taxila needed was given by the earth ‘as a mother [nurtured] her child with milk.’

He was free, said Mandanis, to go where he pleased. He was his own master, never burdened against his will and he wished to remain that way. But if Alexander were to cut off his head, he would still be unable to destroy his soul, said our philosopher. And the soul would leave the body ‘like a torn garment upon the earth’ to join the Maker. “Go, then, and tell Alexander this: Mandanis has no need of aught that is yours, and therefore will not go to you, but if you want anything from Mandanis, come you to him.”

Megasthenes writes, “Alexander, on receiving from Onesicritus a report of the interview, felt a stronger desire than ever to see Mandanis, who, though old and naked, was the only antagonist in whom he, the conqueror of many nations, had found more than his match.”

The writer is author of eight travel books including The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Around Abbottabad

Located north of Islamabad, Abbottabad is a town surrounded by lofty peaks and pine scented air. Among Pakistan's towns and cities, Abbottabad –- small, neat and clean in spacious valley -- is a rarity. Apart from being famous for its educational institutions and Pakistan Military Academy, Abbottabad also serves as the gateway to some most stunning sites in Pakistan. While other hill stations are deserted during winter this place has visitors due to its bracing weather all year around. The town has beautiful gardens and tall tree lined roads: splendid stretches of turf with plenty of room for polo, football, hockey and golf.

At 1,250 meters above sea level, Abbottabad lies below the lush pines of the Murree Hills. The importance of the town has been diminished a little after the completion of Karakorum Highways because, in the past, the only track available to reach Karakorum was through Babusar Pass, which in it turn could only be approached through Abbottabad. In spite of this development, it continues to be a transit town for those who want to venture to Northern Areas of Pakistan. Abbottabad is the junction point from where one can go to places like Hunza, Gilgit, Skardu and Indus Kohistan of the Karakorum Range. One can also reach from here to Swat, Dir and Chitral of the Hindukush Range or can approach to Naran, Lake Saif-ul-Muluk, Shogran and Babusar Pass of the Himalayan Range. Neelum, Lipa and Jhelum Valleys are also connected through Abbottabad. It is where the hills start.

Coins of the Greco-Bectrians kings discovered from the Hazara tract suggest that the area was inhabited in first century B.C. But the Abbottabad town was founded in 1853 by James Abbott (hence the name), who was the first Deputy Commissioner of Hazara – the district right up to its conversion into a division in 1976. In October 1976, Tehsil Mansehra was given the status of a full fledged district, which consisted of Mansehra and Batagram Tehsils. Subsequently in July 1991, Haripur Tehsil was separated from Abbottabad and made district. Thus only the Tehsil Abbottabad remained, which was declared as district.

Abbott James was one of those upper crust Englishmen who helped manage Britain's vast domain. He studied the local conditions, customs, traditions, history and habits. After a lifetime spent travelling around the hills and valleys of Hazara, there seems nothing about the district that he did not get acquainted with. Which is why he knew the district and its people deeply and thoroughly? Aside from being efficient administrator, he was a keen observer and researcher, linguist, archaeologist, historian, botanist and town planner. Abbott‘s tour reports, still preserved in India Office Library London are a valuable reservoir of knowledge for those interested to know about the area.

After independence in 1947, the town became a place for seeking knowledge. Now it is a home to prestigious institutions of learning: the Ayub Medical College, Burn Hall School, and Abbottabad Public School. Ten miles up from Abbottabad is a teaching hospital. Nearby Kakul has the Pakistan Military Academy (one of the best rated military training institutions in the world giving training to cadet officers from many countries in addition to Pakistan) and the School of Music. Before independence, Albert Victor Unaided High School and a Municipal Anglo-Vernacular High School were good educational institution in the town.

The Cantonment area of Abbottabad gives old look. European type huge bungalows, the club, the church and the British cemetery are still there. The town presents every graduation of scenery, altitude and climate. I caught my first glimpse of Abbottabad in early march when I travelled up to Havalian by train and further ahead to the town by a Ford Wagon. Now comfortable flying coaches commute between Rawalpindi-Islamabad and Abbottabad.

Spring in Abbottabad is for the most part lovely time. Clouds fly about low in the sky, playing hide and seek with the hills. There is a nip in the air, with frosty mornings and chilly evenings. The lush green countryside is at its best after weeks of winter rains. New leaves are budding into the light, and the blossoms are out in all their glory -- apricot, pear, peach, plum and apple. I ate the world's most delicious plums from the orchards around Abbottabad.

During my two years stay in town and permanent association thereafter, I have come to know Abbottabad and its environs. It still is a clean little town, as pretty as a picture postcard. On weekends, young and smart Gentlemen Cadets from the Military Academy, dressed in similar attire, throng the shady streets lined with humble shops. Clusters of houses are widely scattered along hill contours that give a sense of openness. On a clear day one can see right across the valley from the town to Thandiani and beyond and if listening carefully, one could hear the pipe or brass bands playing melodious tunes in the School of Music or some instructor shouting drill orders at the top of his voice. More people are seen walking. There are fewer vehicles on the roads. The town has no high-rise buildings and dazzling plazas, and of course there seems to be no hurry.

The panorama starts changing after crossing Haripur. Environment is tranquil, pollution free and quiet. One finds countless attractions spread around the town. There are meadows here and there, grassy stretches, wild flowers and walking tracks. Go for climbing, trekking, rock repelling or explore Thandiani or Shinkiari valleys. Further north; go to the black mountain near Oghi or to see the Asokan inscriptions on boulders near base of Bareri Hill close to Mansehra. Or just sit on top of a hillock overlooking Ilyasi Mosque and count yourself lucky for being there.

While the entire valley is breathtaking in its splendour and beauty, one of my most enduring memories is watching the sunrise over snow clad Thandiani -– meaning cold in the local language -— in winters. It is a small plateau surrounded by pine forests. The drive to Thandiani from Abbottabad is one with lovely views on both sides of the road. There are some most beautiful glades on the way to Thandiani. The road rises gradually above Abbottabad. In the past, on the way to Thandiani, along with tall majestic pine trees you came across groups of monkeys. Their population is dwindling now.

Thandiani offers lush green lovely sight. Small colourful flowers bloom here and there. It looks like someone has covered the mountains with green velvet layers and the flowing water channels increase many fold its splendour and majesty. Every scene is lovely on its own. At night the lights of Abbottabad and Azad Kashmir are clearly visible. To the east beyond the Kunhar River may be seen the snow covered mountain ranges of Kashmir, to the North and North East, the mountains of Kohistan and Kaghan are sighted, and to the North West are the snowy ranges of Swat and Chitral. A welldefined and common walking trail leads from Thandiani to Murree through well wooded and attractive country (with an overnight stay in the way). In this very touristy area, apart from spectacular sights what one comes across are kindnesses from any thing but ordinary people of the area. It was while walking on this route that a local who courteously walked some distance with me once told, “Keep a lemon and suck on it while walking hard and long in hills. It gives strength and quenches thrust. And, Tire the mountain not yourself.” I realize the folk wisdom in the advices every time I walk.

More adventurous can back pack their provisions and take a long but beautiful walk on off the road track to Hasan Abdal. In the way, have tea at lonely railway station Sarae Saleh. By the time you reach there, it will taste the best. On the way, you will sure come across Cadets from Pakistan Military Academy walking in files with heavy rucksacks engaged in out door training exercises. On this route, also look for a peculiar board hanging on the parameter fence of Golden Apple orchard near Haripur that reads, "Greedily looking on the fruit is prohibited." What is the harm in looking at fresh fruit from across the fence? I keep wondering since I first saw it.

Abbottabad has been a favoured summer destination for rest and relaxation; for locals on the run from the sweltering heat in summer all over the country; for foreigners in the capital city Islamabad who want to chill out on weekends, and hard core travellers on way to picturesque Northern Pakistan and beyond to China. But one does not have to wait for any season to go to Abbottabad. You can enjoy there any time round the years!

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Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Lahore Ke Panchi

There were times when Lahories used to have parties with squirrels and birds. No more. Read what Nuzhat Saadia Siddiqi writes about birds have taken flight.

Not a very long time ago, the city of Lahore woke up to birdsong and chirping. These sounds, however, are being silenced by unchecked and unsustainable development and human settlement. So much so that now, as compared to the 240 bird species that were recorded in Lahore in a study conducted in 1965, only 101 bird species were recorded during a study conducted in 1992. Ornithologists estimate there are currently only 85 bird species left in Lahore, including resident and migrant species.

Once mostly consisting of agriculture land, the city has expanded immensely in the past six decades. With continued influx of people from neighbouring small towns and villages in search of better livelihood, demand for housing increased rapidly and it is still growing. In addition, local businesses paved way for conversion of previously protected areas such as parks and open public spaces into business zones and housing projects.

Lack of a competent development strategy and lacklustre local leadership have further allowed haphazard construction, felling trees, filling in marshes and levelling parks. The situation is not just aesthetically unpleasant, it is also an environmental and ecological challenge that is only now coming to the fore of our societal conscience as natural disasters loom and climate change becomes a buzzword.

The most visible of Lahore’s birds today are the common house sparrow, Grey Hornbill, Yellow-footed Green Pigeon, Parakeet, Bulbuls, Doves, Spotted Owlets, Babblers, Flycatchers, Mynas, Woodpeckers, Crows, Kites, Ashy Prynia, Red Start, Grey Hornbills, Warblers, Red Wattled Lapwing, Kingfishers, house crows and the Oriental White Eye. In warmer months, birds from the southern parts of the country migrate here for food and breeding purposes. These include Purple Sunbird, Koel, Golden Oriole and Cuckoo species. In colder months, the search for food brings birds like Yellow Browed Warbler, Common Starling, White Wagtail, Yellow Wagtail and Large Pied Wagtail. They feast on small insects, spiders, mollusks and soft seeds from moist soil, which is becoming rarer now as Lahore has less agriculture land.

“I have seen Indian Coursers where the new campus of Punjab University now stands,” says Z. B. Mirza, author of Birds of Pakistan when asked about the bird species which have disappeared from Lahore. “There was the wetland of Keeran village west of Model Town. I have seen cranes in that wetland.”

Neither of these species has been seen in Lahore in recent times. But where Man has taken away, Nature has given. Some species of birds have successfully adapted in the face of urbanisation, becoming resilient against change, and this is ensuring their continued breeding and sustenance. Species like Mynas, Blue Rock Pigeons and Robins use urban structures such as electric wires, poles, houses, ventilator shafts, roofs and nest boxes installed by humans to roost, nest and feed their young.

However, ornithologists confirm that bird species which rely on endemic flora of Lahore are still at risk as there is a dangerous trend towards replacing indigenous plant species with exotic ones.

Ecological linkages between trees such as Arjun, Bair, Banyan, Pipal, Kikar, Shisham, Peelo, Amaltas, Jamun, Mango, Saru, and Neem and several bird species are well established and it is critical to note that as these trees are being felled — to make room for wider roads and development projects — it is getting more difficult for bird species such as the Green Pigeon and the Grey Hornbill to survive. According to a source at WWF-Pakistan, both of these species are now considered ‘species of concern’, as their numbers are rapidly declining.

A solution would be to create widespread awareness and bring back the horticulture of the 1940s on a municipal and district level in new colonies to give a chance to the original bird species to flourish. The City District Government Lahore (CDGL) can play a key role in this regard. Furthermore, the local authorities should adopt procedures that require ecological surveys and urban environment surveys before a large scale development project is undertaken to minimise damage to not just the birds, but human health as well.

Apart from smaller insectivore and herbivore birds, birds of prey and scavengers, such as the Gyps vultures, have also succumbed to the harshness with which we deal with our environment. Once a common sight atop tall trees in places such as the Kinnaird College campus where they roosted and nested, the white-backed vultures have steadily been disappearing, mainly due to the proliferation of the drug ‘diclofenac’ that is injected in livestock.

Vultures feeding on carcasses of these animals develop acute kidney failure and die. Organisations such as WWF-Pakistan, in partnership with the Punjab Wildlife and Parks Department, have launched the ‘Gyps Vulture Restoration Project’ in Chhanga Manga to save this ‘nature’s cleaner’, and have lobbied to achieve a ban on the use of diclofenac for veterinary uses.

Just as most of our national treasures go unnoticed, the birds of Lahore also garner little or no attention.

Gone are the days of steadfast bird-watching and the interest the hobby entailed. With new technologies, we might as well watch a Red-vented Bulbul or a Rosy Starling on our computer screens, rather than venturing outside. Clearly it is time for us all to rethink our lifestyles and find ways to co-exist with nature’s finest creations. After all, what is more uplifting than the sight of a bird shooting thorough the evening sky, or listening to its melodious song?

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Kalyan of Taxila

Salman Rashid

It happened in Persepolis (whose ruins lie northwest of Shiraz, in Iran). The histories do not assign a definite date to it, but from a timetable of events we know it would have occurred sometime in the spring of 323 BCE. The tellers of our tale are both reliable, however. We have the Greek philosopher, historian and teacher Plutarch writing about 70 CE and we have Arrian, a Greek general serving Roman masters, who wrote about sixty years later.

Having made off with his life from his Indian campaigns, Alexander was in Persepolis. In his train he had a Punjabi philosopher, a native of Taxila whose name, the histories record, was Kalanos — definitely a Greek mispronunciation of the Sanskrit word Kalyan (Fortunate). When he left his home in Taxila and agreed to accompany Alexander so that the Macedonian conqueror may learn more of Indian philosophy, Kalyan was already an elderly man. One source says he was in his late seventies at that time.

Now three years later, having endured the dreadful privation of the crossing of the deserts of Makran, Kalyan had been ill for a few months. He was drained of the will to live. One day, Arrian records, he told Alexander that since he was unwilling to follow an invalid regimen, he was prepared to end his life on a funeral pyre.

Alexander pleaded with him, no doubt saying that there were ideas that the two yet needed to talk of. But Kalyan was adamant. A funeral pyre was built under the direct supervision of no less a person than Ptolemy, one of Alexander’s confidants and progenitor of the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt.

From his quarters, the enfeebled Kalyan was carried in a palanquin to his pyre at the head of a procession: “horses, men, soldiers in armour, and people carrying all kinds of precious oils and spices to throw upon the flames…”. With his head wreathed in garlands ‘in the Indian fashion’ Kalyan sang hymns to his gods as he went.

From Arrian we learn that in the years the sage had spent with the motley army of Macedonian, Greek, Scythian, Persian, Parthian and Sogdian soldiers, he had earned fame and respect. There were countless in the procession who were his pupils and who showered upon their mentor gifts of gold and silver, which he redistributed among the host.

We now must turn to Plutarch who tells us that just before the pyre was set alight, Alexander approached the man who had been his friend and teacher for three years. He pleaded for the last time with Kalyan to spare himself. But the man refused and mounted the still unlit pyre. He drank his last libation and told the gathering to make this a day of ‘gaiety and celebration and to drink deep with the king….’ As for Alexander, Kalyan of Taxila said the two of them would soon be reunited in Babylon.

As the fire was kindled, Alexander ordered an impressive salute with bugles and a full-throated battle cry by the army. What overawed the gathered multitude was Kalyan’s complete imperviousness to the flames around him, for he neither let out a moan nor flinched in the least bit. This event would surely have remained alive in Persepolitan memory for years afterward.

Abiding by the savant’s bidding, Alexander did indeed turn the day into one of celebration and held a feast and a drinking contest after the funeral. One Promachus, we are told, polished off four pitchers of undiluted wine to clinch the winner’s prize of a crown, presumably of gold.

At the time of this event, no one may have given much thought to Kalyan’s words about being reunited with Alexander in Babylon. But surely, many would have called this prophecy to mind when scarcely fourteen months later, in early June 322 BCE, following a brief illness, Alexander died in that Mesopotamian city.

Kalyan was not the only philosopher that Taxila had produced, however.

Salman Rashid is author of eight travel books including The Apricot Road to Yarkand 

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Taste it

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